The Guardian 25 May, 2005

TV programs worth watching
Sun May 29 ó Sat June 4


In a triumph of publishing promotion, Dan Brownís book The Da Vinci Code has hooked millions of readers who argue fervently about whether or not it is true. Television has been quick to leap on this pop-culture bandwagon, producing numerous spurious examinations of the supposed arguments advanced in Brownís book.

I say supposed arguments because the book is a work of pure fiction. Its marketing gimmick however is to assert that what itís about is true.

It has aroused tremendous controversy by postulating a series of what-ifs: what if Jesus had married Mary Magdalene? What if they had had a child? What it the legendary Holy Grail is not the communion cup used at the Last Supper but Jesusí actual blood, or more accurately Jesusí blood line?

The ABC has already run at least one rubbishy offering from US cable TV on the possible historical significance of this nonsense, but presumably there will be no more after the two-part series The Real Da Vinci Code (ABC 7.30pm Sundays). For this series well and truly punctures the mixture of legends, misreadings of history and actual fraud that are the basis for this latest "best seller".

Tony Robinson (Baldrick in Blackadder) investigates each of the elements postulated in Brownís book and finds them false, disproved or impossible. In at least one case, the claims were known to be false when the book was written, but Brown has no qualms about asserting in the book and on air that itís all based on historical fact.

I donít care if Jesus was married, a bigamist or had a particular fondness for poultry, but it says a lot about our capitalist society that this fictional poppycock is much more widely promoted than the actual history of the times and the subject.

An ignorant public will buy this type of rubbish, an informed public will not. Market forces, after all.

I recommend The Real Da Vinci Code.

The Secret Life Of Ö series on famous works of art was an above-average series that was intelligent and informative. I can recommend the repeat of The Secret Life Of The Mona Lisa (ABC 9.25pm Sunday).

The program considers the Mona Lisa from all aspects: its history, including its theft from the Louvre in 1911, the identity of the "mysterious" woman who was its subject (and yes, her identity is known), the style of the painting and the stages by which Leonardo built it up.

The film also examines the attitudes and beliefs of the artist himself and how they are expressed in the painting, indeed how they are central to the painting.

In this regard, the program examines the part of the painting most people ignore, the mysterious but highly significant landscape in the background. Clues in the landscape refer to Leonardoís many interests ó flight, anatomy, palaeontology, geology, optics, meteorology, hydraulics, engineering, psychology and map-making.

Itís the 1990s. Gathered together at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are the most mathematically brilliant students in the country. So what will they do?

Devise a way to counter global warming? Invent a method of running cars efficiently on recycled chocolate wrappers?

No. Of course not. This is the USA and these are the best and brightest of capitalismís young intellectuals.

Instead, as Beating Vegas shows, in the Cutting Edge timeslot (SBS 8.30pm Tuesday), they will spend months in intensive practice sessions to perfect the art of undetectable card counting and secret signaling. Having mastered card counting ó based on a mathematical probability program for the game of blackjack devised in the early 1960s by a professor at, of course, MIT ó they will head for Las Vegas and make a killing at the casinos.

Yep, the loftiest aim they could aspire to was to make millions of dollars. And while there is a certain grim satisfaction in seeing them clean up at the Mafiaís expense, one cannot escape the feeling that itís a sad waste of some serious talent.

Throughout the 1930s, í40s and í50s, American Communists and other progressives denounced and campaigned against "Jim Crow", the system of segregation in the Deep South of the USA.

Jim Crow not only segregated blacks and whites, it institutionalised the oppression of blacks and made the denial of their rights lawful.

As The Murder Of Emmett Till shows (ABC 9.30pm Thursday), Blacks in the South of the USA lived under very similar conditions to Blacks in South Africa under apartheid.

Racist terrorism was rife; lynchings were commonplace.

The Federal agency charged with protecting the civil rights of all Americans (Black or white) was the FBI. But the FBIís boss, J Edgar Hoover, was too concerned preparing for what he confidently saw as "the coming Black uprising" to worry about safeguarding black peopleís rights.

Then, in 1955, a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago whistled at a white woman in a grocery store in the backward, one-horse town of Money, Mississippi. Emmett Till, visiting relatives in the district, didnít understand that he had broken an unwritten law of the Jim Crow South.

Three days later, two white men dragged him from his bed in the dead of night, bashed him in the face repeatedly with a .45 revolver, finally shot him, and dumped his body in the Tallahatchie River.

Mamie Till, Emmettís mother, decided to leave the casket open at her sonís funeral in Chicago. She told the mortician not to "fix" her sonís face.

Tens of thousands of people viewed Emmett Tillís body, which was on display in a Chicago church for four long days. Gruesome photos of his maimed and distorted face flooded the national and international press.

Although his killers were arrested and charged with murder, they were both acquitted by an all-white, all-male local jury. Shortly after the trial, the defendants sold their story to the press, giving a detailed account of how they murdered Emmett and revealing that they felt no remorse at all.

The federal government de≠clined to intercede in the Till case. The murder of Emmett Till became a watershed in the development of the nascent movement for civil rights.

Three months and three days after Emmett Tillís body was pulled from the Tallahatchie, the Montgomery Bus Boycott began.

This is compelling viewing, produced by public broadcaster WGBH in Boston, showing just how good US public broadcasting can be.

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